St. Louis Riverfront, 10:10 a.m.
In society there was always the lowest of the classes with no money, no position and no love. Kemper dwelled below even that class and it suited him just fine. It allowed him to go about his business unhindered and without scrutiny because even the lowest of the low did not want to acknowledge him. In most people’s eyes, he was worse than a flea on a boil on a mangy dog’s ass: just along for the ride and too unseemly to notice.
He arrived at the levee with but one path and goal before him: find McDonough and Bennet. All other humans in their own lockstep were but obstacles to Kemper.
He awoke beneath the porch of a tailor shop looking out onto the river. His bed was picked hastily last night, for at the time, he was fatigued beyond his most recent memory. The life of an asylum patient provided little exercise beyond trips up and down the hall to the privy.
The struggle overtaking Felix, securing his laudanum, the subsequent journey to the hotel and then to the levee had fagged him out. Another aspect he had to struggle with was the sheer overwhelming nature of life outside the asylum walls. The chaos he experienced just walking into a hotel lobby was almost too much, but when he focused on the men and his need to find them, he found himself slipping back into the stream of life beyond the walls. He was fortunate though to find this alcove at the riverside where he could rest and recoup, for he had reached the point of exhaustion when he climbed in.
Before making himself visible to society once again, he lipped at a bottle of his laudanum—only a half chug, for he knew not when an opportunity to restock his supply would present itself.
He re-corked and rose, stretching in the cramped space. He re-counted the cash at his disposal. A total of nine dollars and four cents was the sum together from both his bartering in hospice and a small amount found in Felix’s pockets. That money had probably been Kemper’s originally, anyway.
It had cost him one dollar and a half in bribe funds at the hotel to get what little information he had about the boys and the levee. It would in all probability cost him yet more before the day was out. It was better to be lighter of pocket and spirit, for each penny dispensed brought information to fed the soul.
At first, the hotel proved a dry well of information, for no one had any information as to Herc and Silas’ direction of travel. He knew their destination was The Arizona Territory, but he hoped to snag them while they were so close. He had expected a night of random hunting, but a bellman returning from the levee overheard his inquiries and pulled him aside near the entrance.
He saw the men that day while he was delivering a guest’s luggage to a departing steamer at the landing. Kemper gladly payed the man to remember their direction and to keep quiet about his inquiries.
He was disappointed at the low amount of commotion on the levee. He reasoned the more people, the more opportunity to discover the path of his prey. Still, there was a fair amount of laborers to question. He heaved himself over the low brick edge of his cradle and navigated toward the southern end of traffic. The bottles tinkled lightly in his pockets. He touched them to quiet them, and himself.
As he found his pace, he looked out between the docked ships and onto the river. A paddlewheel boat with an odd-looking crane on the bow was venting off a low, long whistle. As she passed, Kemper noted a great deal of activity on her deck. With his limited knowledge of river life, he reckoned it was common upon launching.
What seemed uncommon to him were the horses grouped around the crane device and three road-ready traveling men standing nearby. If a group were ready to travel by horse, why engage the services of a steamer? They were unclear to him, for his eyesight had degraded from disuse in the asylum over time, but he reckoned he was looking for two men and a young girl, so he disengaged from the curiosity and walked up to three black men rolling barrels aboard another steamer docked nearby.
Good a place as any.
In the short span of an hour, Kemper had found the trail of his quarry. There was much talk of a fellow named Pie who was “baptized” in the river yesterday by a burly fellow in the company of another man and a young girl. He was directed to the boat Pie served on as dock foreman.
He came up to a small cluster of four black men who sat before the boat in question, The Cairo Star. “Hello, boys. You all work for Pie?” He contained his excitement admirably.
They looked among each other and finally one old man clutching a gnarled pipe between his crooked teeth said, “That depends.” He appeared to be in charge only because he was the oldest.
“Depends on what?”
None of them looked up to Kemper, only at each other.
The old man offered, “On whether Mister Pie gone show up t’day or not. Cap’n give him another hour, then he fired.”
The younger men smiled coyly at this and looked to the ground or the river.
“He ain’t the best boss, I surmise,” Kemper said.
“Sir, I would rather not comment, as he ain’t fired yet and you may well be an ally of his.”
One man, a young, gangly fellow sitting on the brick inspected a hole in the sole of his shoe.
“I have never met the man, but I would like to. He is the man who got thrown in the river yesterday by an old acquaintance of mine.” Kemper reasoned he was not actually lying. “I was looking—”
The old spokesman brightened, “Why on earth didn’t ya’ll say so! Any man a friend of Hercules, he’s a friend to all!” He said as several of the others also perked up considerably. “I tell you right now, old Herc done thowed that man a good ten rods into the water right on this spot right here! It was a comical sight to see. Yes, I been on this river for goin’ on twenty years and I ain’t never seen nuthin’ like it, but then again, that’s the kind of excitement follows old Herc around.”
The men to a one nodded and grinned in assent.
“You all see where my friends made off to after that?”
“No sir. We was so blinded by tears of laughter you could’a dropped an elephant right in front of us and we’d be hard-pressed to notice. Yup, they just disappeared . . .”
The young shoe inspector wanted to add a few words, but was quickly hushed by the elder statesman.
“What is it, boy?” Kemper asked the young man. He stepped into the crowd and looked down on the seated fellow, imposing his race, and therefore position, on him. “You got something on your brain?”
“Boss, don’t you pay him no mind. That boy ain’t right and he get all kind of things mixed up most times,” the old man said quickly. “He ain’t but a dumb pup.”
The younger man gave a look of incredulity.
Kemper reached into his pocket and pulled out a dollar, waving it before the young man. His wide-eyed gaze swapped between the old black man and the money. He was truly at a consternating crossroads.
The old man put his hand over the dollar and waved at it in the negative. “They’s good friends of ours and we won’t be sayin’ what we know for any old dollar.”
Kemper withdrew two more, setting all eyes wide—even the old man’s.
The spokesman looked about him, scratched his bright grey beard, drew a puff off his pipe and snatched at the money in Kemper’s hand.
Kemper whipped his hand back, out of reach, and shook his head. “Tell me the story first.”
The old man smiled. “We don’t know where they gone, but Pie, he said he was gonna find ’em and get his due. I hear he found the boys down at Smitty’s and he was gonna do his deed last night. Looks like he got hung up and that’s why he ain’t to work yet. I would not want to be the man to go up against either one of them boys, let alone the two as a pair.”
They gave directions to Smitty’s at no extra cost. Kemper threw the money to the levee bricks and walked north. He did not look back to watch the scuffle over the cash.
In the knot of action, the old man stood up and called to Kemper. “You all ain’t gone say nothin’ about this here deal to them boys, is you?”
“I doubt it will come up.”
He followed the open path between boat and brick along the levee. He was in such high spirits, he pushed down the urge to partake of his stash.